For those just tuning in, here is a curated narrative of the project known as Ten Manipulations.

ErnestIn February of 2004, my freshman year room-mate and actor Ernest approached me about writing a short script that he could produce (with himself as star, naturally). I pitched him several ideas, one of which was a group of inter-weaving stories about twenty-something art school graduates:

A character piece, based around a group of NY art school (read Tisch) friends. Each has their own issues. They are all inter-related like in Altman films, (or Magnolia).

The central metaphor of the piece: life is a collaboration.

The characters will be created in collaboration with the actors, but here are a few plot lines that will be interwoven:

–Character A will be a kleptomaniac, and some CDs he/she stole from Character B will be discovered in Character A’s apartment by Character B at a party.

–Character C is a painter who is obsessed with pubescent girls. He lures them into his studio and perhaps has sex with them, as well as painting them.

–Character D is in love with Character E and can’t bring him/herself to talk to him/her until Characters F and G convince him her to.

–Characters F and G are fighting over whether to have a baby. The fight results in G temporarily moving out. But G returns and love triumphs, inspiring Character D.

–Character H is a writer who is writing a thinly-veiled version of the above stories.

–Other ideas welcome. This may be one too many storylines for the size of film we are doing.

The characters will all have unpredictable connections, like Character B is Character F’s boss and Character C is Character G’s brother. Part of the fun will be learning how they all connect. The dialogue will all be written in an extremely naturalist manner, with additional improvisation on top of that increasing the veneer of reality.

John OttWe soon agreed that as long as you’re putting in the time to make a film, you might as well make it feature length, since there are so few outlets for shorts. Ernest wanted me to direct, but I wasn’t confident I’d had enough directing experience to tackle a project of this size and complexity. Still, I agreed to act as a producer on the project until such time as we could attract a more experienced filmmaker.

Read more…The original name of the project was Collaboration, built around the central metaphor that life was a collaboration between you and the people you interact with. Ernest and his friend Joel (who was involved briefly but moved on to other projects) pushed for a darker, more controversial narrative. BrandonWhen I completed the first treatment, the project had become known as Manipulations. I wrote the first draft very quickly because we had talked through the treatment and I had a good idea of what we all wanted to make. As an experiment in blogging, I hoped to build a resource that went through all stages of making a movie, or as the first caption on this website so cliché-edly put it, “the trials and tribulations of making an independent film”.

Nine drafts followed the first, all the time honing scenes with Ernest and his actor friends, one of whom, Brandon, came in to read and we knew we had to keep. Brandon proved to be a dedicated and willing partner, and the characters quickly came into focus in the ensuing drafts.


There was CHARLIE, the failed artist. After graduating from film school, Charlie had found himself in the world of P.R. and in the classic art vs. commerce dilemma. In the central scene of the opening pages, Charlie is out at dinner celebrating his recent promotion with his girlfriend CHERRELLE and his old school buddies DON & AVERY, a gay couple. He’s absolutely miserable because he hasn’t succeeded as an artist and his friends are completely deaf and blind to his inner misery. He later self-destructs, divesting himself of Cherrelle and the job and even Don, his best friend, before being able to experience his moment of artistic epiphany. He re-orients from a philosophy of theft to one of principled observation, of finding and capturing small moments of beauty. And he returns to make amends with the people he hurt.

That was the hardest story to write, because the conflict is almost entirely internal, and it changed the most through the drafts. But it was central, because there was always the slight po-mo suggestion that the movie we are watching is in fact being directed by Charlie. (Just enough of a hint of auto-biography to make it commercial.)

Don & Avery are in an abusive relationship. Both went to school for acting but only Don is still giving it a go. Avery, meanwhile, exorcises his inner demons by beating Don. This was originally written as a hetero abusive relationship, but we decided that same-sex abusive relationships were a real and present issue that we hadn’t seen addressed on film. I struggled very hard in writing this in a way that would be true to the psychology of abusive relationships. I don’t know that I had yet succeeded by the time the project fell apart, but Ernest’s final idea of turning the relationship into a S&M one was one of the reasons I ultimately decided that I couldn’t continue with the project.

A side story about an actual artist, a painter named SAND (short for Sandford), was Ernest’s major contribution to the script. He had read a graphic novel called Ripple about an artist who engages a young woman to pose nude for him and later ‘discovers’ that she is under-age. My take on this classic Lolita story made Sand a victim of his own artistic eye. He falls in love with a fourteen-year-old Hispanic girl named JALISA whose combination of innocence and emerging sexuality he finds irrisistable. His artistic block falls away and but not his inhibitions. While clearly pushing the line in asking her to pose provocatively, he doesn’t attempt to seduce her.

Jalisa, meanwhile, tries to find an appropriate partner among boys her own age with TONY, the neighborhood soccer star. She finds herself too mature for Tony and then seeks to lose her virginity to Sand, who has secretly desired just such a thing but feels it is wrong.

Other major characters are SIMON, a failed writer and neurotic who has but one scene in the movie where he speaks — a very theatrical little solo scene in a bar — and BRUCE & NICOLE.

Bruce is a white guy from Georgia who has come to the big city to make it as a jazz guitarist. Nicole is his crush, a black woman with flair for fashion and biological clock ticking non-stop. Their first date goes great until things start moving too fast for Bruce in the bedroom.

That makes ten major characters, and thus the final working title Ten Manipulations.

Final Thoughts
Perhaps there is a tinge of irony in the original title, because it was a breakdown in collaboration that ultimately did us in. We just couldn’t see eye to eye on the movie we were making, and it’s better for it to end now, before a bunch of other people have donated time and money, than in one big implosion on the set. I didn’t come out empty-handed. I have a very solid script that I still might make some day and I kept my writing and collaborating muscles exercised. Projects die in Hollywood all the time. Indie-ville is no different.

UPDATE 2006: The script did in fact have a brief revival. Ernest hooked me up with a director in L.A. and I worked to adapt the story to an L.A. setting. Again, it fizzled. Perhaps because the money couldn’t be raised. Back it goes into the drawer.

if only we had complemented each other so well

Posts on Ten Manipulations in Chronological Order
first (prescient) post on the blog: Setbacks
Rehearsal with Megan Skord
Bringing Brandon On and Success
Rehearsal with Frank Boyd and Irene Keng
Meeting During Presidential Debate and Pictures from that Meeting
meeting about Incorporating as a Small Biz in State of New York
discussion of How to Pitch such an irregular movie
Ernest’s First (and Only) Post
Weekend Round-up plus Final Draft Crashes on Me
A Non-Update Update
About Us (was linked to on the sidebar on every page until recently)
We’ve Been Busy
Artistic Differences featuring Ernest’s famous e-mail
Will the Project Continue?
Nth Script Draft on Hold
Producer Wanted
A Wishlist
No Meeting Tonight
Big Writing Day
Writing a New Ending
Aligning the Planets
Back in Biz-snazz
Party Cancelled
Pre-Pro Pros
Forward Momentum
Over the Hump
The Producers
Been Sick
Still Sick with the infamous ‘passion’ phone call
A Crossroads
The End of the Road – I recount the fateful final meeting
Life After Ten Manipulations